Private Playlist: jez.who shares music for empathy and affirmation

jez.who Photo: Camille Desmond / Illustration: Brian Vu

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments.

jez.who is a Brooklyn-born writer, producer, photographer, and mental health advocate. A student of musical theater, they spent their early years as a cabaret performer in New York while pursuing work in film and TV. Moving to LA in 2018, they began self-producing music at home, releasing the "Peppapot" EP in August 2020. Inspired by their love of message-oriented club divas like Crystal Waters, CeCe Peniston, and Barbara Tucker, the EP also soaks in trip-hop, R&B, and electro influences. jez.who released a new single, "older with time," in March 2021.

For this edition of Private Playlist, jez.who speaks about empathy and affirmation through their love of Celia Cruz, A Tribe Called Quest, and more. 

“People go to the dance floor to be free. People go to the dance floor to release their cares. And for a lot of us who have a super micro-aggressive day, it's the place where we go to not have that.” — jez.who

jez.who: I'm an actor, performer, musician, and all of that. I did a game show that's going to be airing, I think, in the Czech Republic. That's been an interesting foray back into gig work and acting work. Sometimes you're called upon to do a show where you have to smoke an eight-foot bong. There was a casting listing for a cannabis game show. I was like, "Okay, that sounds like me." I sent in two tapings and they said, "Congratulations, you're going to be in this." I got to the set and they said, "Okay, there are three rounds. The first round is three bongs, the second round is five bongs, and the last one is an eight-foot bong." And I ended up making it to the last round. And I'm an asthmatic, so it's really funny that I even made it to the end. I did lose, but I also felt like I won.


Tish Hyman is a Black lesbian from New York. And "Subway Art" is talking about riding the subway and seeing all these beautiful people who are struggling all the time. And honestly, what broke me down in New York is the constant struggle. Not just your struggle, but watching other people struggle, and not knowing how to help. Even living in California, the encampments that are going up and up and up are devastating. 


I remember being driven to third and fourth grade every day, and just wanting to hear Cheryl Lynn’s "Star Love" over and over again. It starts really soft, like a mellow ballad. Then it ramps up and makes a cacophony of noise, and it's an explosion into disco. And I feel like that song made me gay as a kid, because I was like, "Whoa, what is this? Y'all be jammin.’" I was raised on disco through my mother, so it's awesome to still have that in my pocket, you know, to still revere the greats. 

I miss going to the club an hour or two before the party is going to end, seeing my favorite DJ, and just going to bed very, very happy, having those few moments on the dance floor. I even miss being annoyed by people. It's a different social setting. And people go to the dance floor to be free.  People go to the dance floor to release their cares. And for a lot of us who have a super micro-aggressive day, it's the place where we go to not have that. It's the safety. As they said on “Will and Grace,” this is church. I miss it. 


I would choose the whole "20th Century Masters" album by Crystal Waters. People know Crystal Waters for "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)," but I think my favorite song would have to be "In de Ghetto." David Morales and Bad Yard Club do the mix on it, and it has this half-ragga Jamaican feel. It's right up my alley. I'm from the Caribbean, so to have the meld of house music and ragga is mind-explosive for me.


A Tribe Called Quest's "Midnight Marauders" album is particularly important to me, because I like to say I marinated in it. It came out in November of 1993, and I was born in December. So I was listening to it a lot in the womb, and definitely a lot now as an adult. I'm such a music nerd and a sample nerd, and I love that "Lyrics to Go" has a sample of Minnie Riperton's "Inside My Love," which J. Cole also samples on "Everybody Dies." There's this high whistle tone that Minnie Riperton's doing, it's the riding line throughout the whole song, and I love that.


Celia Cruz and Friends' "A Night of Salsa" was an album that I grew up on very heavily. That was a cleaning day album for me. My father is Trinidadian-Venezuelan, and different types of music from Central and South America are things that I've held dear to my heart. And I love this live album for the simple fact that hearing someone live is a totally different experience from a studio album. And Celia Cruz, as an artist who is energetic and giving — not only to the artists around her, but to the audience — is something to witness. It's the closest thing to godliness you can experience as an audience member. And I love how steadfast Celia Cruz always was in her Blackness. There's a lot of talk about being Black and being a person of Latinx experience. And she always made sure to recognize and uplift all of the parts of herself. And that's a message I can carry on within myself: to always be steadfast in who you are and to always uplift the people around you.


Amaré Symone's "Kol(ours)" is a gorgeous, gorgeous song. She identifies as a Black queer woman, and she's from Brooklyn. And the song is a celebration of her identity. [It was released] in a time when I don't think we were talking about the intersections of being Black and queer. "Kol(ours)" is a beautiful celebration of shining bright in all the many colors that you possess.

In growing up, I was taught to assimilate a lot. People tell me all the time, "You don't have an accent." And that's because assimilation has been a part of my whole life. You know, it started before me. My parents are not from here. And so [this song] hits it right there. It's like, "Oh, all the things that bring me joy. Am I not allowed to have them? Am I not allowed to express them?" So it's definitely an affirmation that you are whole as you are.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Pete Tong is comfortable with musical melancholy
La Santa Cecilia's La Marisoul finds hope for the future in music
Bob Mould seeks artful inspiration from Janelle Monáe, Elliott Smith, and the Byrds
San Cha believes we can create, no matter our circumstances
M. Ward is listening to music by his influences’ influencers
Alice Bag is doing the live music withdrawal dance
Madame Gandhi on Fela, feminism, and the bravery of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell
Aimee Mann looks past the snark to appreciate Steely Dan’s craft
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad on finding solace in Gil Scott-Heron
Madame Gandhi on Fela, feminism, and the bravery of Brian Eno and Jon Hassell
TOKiMONSTA is rediscovering her love for the guitar
Jeff Parker is busy studying music in hibernation mode
Dorian Wood is walking a tightrope and trying not to look down
Thundercat on the importance of albums as a journey
Neon Indian shares music for your inner monologue
Mia Doi Todd recommends space-age sounds and Brazilian tunes
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy offers an earthy soundtrack for the homebound
Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds
Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine
Go Betty Go’s Nicolette Vilar shares her love of Mazzy Star, Dusty Springfield, and more
Mary Lattimore is communing with musical kindred spirits
Ndidi O selects music for a melancholy autumn
Julianna Barwick recommends music with emotion and experimentation
Private Playlist: A playlist featuring seven of our favorite segments
From Bootsy Collins to Machinedrum: DUCKWRTH draws on the classic and contemporary
Maral recommends music that creates its own world, from Nico to Panda Bear
Lyric Jones shares her most rewindable music selections, from Georgia Anne Muldrow to Benny the Butcher
Open Eagle Mike stans The Breeders’ dark purple jams and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s musical velvet painting
From Tigran Hamasyan to Sam Prekop, Machinedrum recommends music for self-reflection
Prince, D’Angelo, and Pharrell make Channel Tres’ playlist of songs that created his musical world in Compton
From Minnie Riperton to Xinxin, Qur’an Shaheed’s Private Playlist gets to her inner truth during quarantine
Karriem Riggins drums up a Private Playlist with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, and Kleeer
Herbie Hancock and Cibo Matto launch Xinxin’s Private Playlist soundtrack for interplanetary travel
Lady Blackbird’s Private Playlist honors the fearless music of Billie Holiday, Donny Hathaway, and more
From Paul Simon to Tune-Yards, LA songwriter Gabe Goodman reflects on the musical masters of his quarantine for Private Playlist
How music helped Genevieve Artadi fight isolation and stay connected in a long distance relationship
‘The world is endless; the music doesn't stop.’ Frankie Reyes looks to ‘techno-indigenous’ composers like Mort Garson and Steve Roach for his Private Playlist.”
The Koreatown Oddity shares inspirational classics from Horace Silver and The Stranglers for his Private Playlist
Dante Elephante’s Ruben Zarate reps for Eydie Gorme and Orange Juice in his all-vinyl ‘Private Playlist’
Sasami collects animal-themed songs from Can, The Coasters, Robert Wyatt, and more for her ‘Private Playlist’
Vinyl Williams gathers his favorite musical jewels from Zambian rock to baroque pop for Private Playlist